As with all modern scandals, when news broke last week of the FIFA bribery arrests, the death watch questions began: Can FIFA survive? What do they have to do to emerge from this scandal?
I would add another question to the list: Does FIFA really have a crisis?
The short answer is, yes, but it has less to do with the soupy externality known as "image problems" and everything to do with sponsor risk.
Last year's NFL domestic violence mess is a good starting point for figuring out what FIFA is facing. After the video of Ray Rice hitting his then-girlfriend surfaced, news coverage was non-stop. "Can-the-NFL-Survive?" hysteria dominated the airwaves as did declarations of NFL mismanagement.
No one, however, was accusing the NFL as an organization of programmatic domestic violence: Critics were saying that the NFL was obligated to address a culture that permitted it. After all, Ray Rice wasn't the only athlete being accused. The weekend after the scandal broke, football stadiums were filled with spectators and TV viewership was unaffected. According to AdAge.com, "The NFL and its 32 teams actually grew sponsorship revenue for the 2014-15 season by 7.8 percent to $1.15 billion, according to sponsorship research firm IEG. TV viewers did not defect." The NFL lost no sponsors.
It is possible to revel in the media noise surrounding a scandal but still support the scandalized party, much in the same way that Americans devoured information about President Bill Clinton's sex life but still approved of his presidency.
Much of Clinton's survival during the Monica Lewinsky affair was tied to the public's familiarity with his ill-advised romantic adventures. And so it is with many professional sports leagues. Roger Goodell has never been a beloved figure and basketball fans assume that the NBA is rigged in favor of large media market teams. One of the key attractions of the NBA and NFL drafts is the sheer joy of heckling the commissioners. The NCAA is also considered to be hospitable to corruption of sorts yet nobody stops watching bowl games or March Madness.
Which brings us back to FIFA, which has endured rumors of corruption for years. The upshot of FIFA gossip has involved naughty officials getting bribes from big companies, something that many soccer fans see as a victimless crime that doesn't affect their enjoyment of the sport. Nevertheless, the recent bribery charges take some of the vagueness out of it by naming names and featuring larger-than-life characters like American official Chuck Blazer who is alleged to have rented a multi-million dollar apartment in New York's Trump Tower for his cats.
While soccer fans are almost certain not to abandon the sport over this, corporations are another matter. As a rule, companies don't like to flee from forums where they can draw billions of eyeballs to their logos, but bribery scandals are terrifyingly special. I have worked with companies that have spent hundreds of millions in legal fees to manage a bribery scandal -- even with the most attenuated evidence -- before any verdict is even adjudicated.
Moreover, bribery is something FIFA officials have been accused of engaging in directly. It's one thing for there to be vague allegations of boys-will-be-boys corruption. It's another thing for the U.S. Department of Justice to hand down indictments. No business wants its passport stamped into the world of a Justice Department criminal probe.
There are tangible examples of the downstream concern about FIFA's activities, including Johnson & Johnson and Castrol stepping away from their sponsorships, albeit without much explanation. After the bribery arrests last week, FIFA sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch, McDonald's, Adidas and Visa issued statements disdaining corruption, but stopped well short of abandoning FIFA.
Then there is the horrendous matter of the body count of Nepalese workers associated with the construction of the World Cup facility in Qatar, estimated at nearly 1,000 in 2012 and 2013. Whatever one might believe about capitalist cold-bloodedness, human right atrocities rightly cause extreme anxiety in corporate boardrooms.
The question of what FIFA must do to attack its challenge is one for another article, but the navigation of every sport-wide crisis in which I have been involved has been anchored in the inside game of babysitting and negotiating with the very anxious sponsors that wield the behind-the-scenes power to set the organization's direction more than the public can imagine.
I don't expect soccer viewership to plummet anytime soon, but I do expect Sepp Blatter and his colleagues to continue to be forced into unfamiliar territory. FIFA will have to convince sponsors via tangible changes in its modus operandi that their brands are not at risk and pitch new brands that the benefits of sponsorship outweigh the risks of being associated with reprehensible behavior, not to mention crippling legal fees.
Stuart Dezenhall contributed to this report.